The Tampa airwaves are getting a little crowded. With more than 50,000 visitors expected at the Republican National Convention — many of them wielding data-hogging smartphones and laptops — wireless providers are adding new cell towers, Wi-Fi hot spots and temporary cell sites. Tech Tuesday goes behind the scenes at the convention.

Guests

  • Mark Francis Vice President of Global Network Operations, AT&T

Transcript

  • 12:24:27

    MR. KOJO NNAMDIWelcome back. We are coming to you live from the Republican National Convention. It's Tech Tuesday. The last time the Republican and Democratic Parties met for their national conventions, a cellphone was still, well, just a cellphone. The iPhone had only come out one year earlier. Few of the delegates or the media throng had any expectation of updating their social media profile or streaming a speech live on their wireless device.

  • 12:24:54

    MR. KOJO NNAMDIThis year, convention organizers expect 50,000 people to converge on this city and the small district within Tampa, playing host to the RNC, 50,000 visitors who have grown accustomed to their bandwidth-logging, bandwidth-hogging smartphones, tablets, laptops and other wireless devices. Organizers have spent months and years bulking up their permanent infrastructure but also bringing in new cell towers on wheels, also known as COWs, and creating hundreds of Wi-Fi hotspots around Tampa.

  • 12:25:27

    MR. KOJO NNAMDIJoining us now to talk about what all of this means and how it has been accomplished is Mark Francis. He is vice president of Global Network Operations at AT&T. He joins us by phone. Mark Francis, thank you for joining us.

  • 12:25:40

    MR. MARK FRANCISHi, Kojo. Very happy to be here.

  • 12:25:53

    NNAMDIWe walked on the floor of the Tampa Bay Times Forum last night, and already we could see just how many devices and pieces of technology will be competing for bandwidth with this week. Not only will there be literally hundreds of media crews running around and hogging a bandwidth to file their news reports, you'll also have delegates who want to use their devices and a whole lot of equipment for putting on the spectacle of the event itself. This seems different from conventions even four years ago. How different is the challenge for a company like AT&T?

  • 12:26:23

    FRANCISYeah, Kojo. This is -- these two conventions, the RNC and the DNC, they will be the most connected conventions in history. So the demand for data and access to that data in real time is unlike ever before in history. And these conventions will leverage the intelligent devices and our networks in order to deliver that real time data to the delegates, to the press, to people that are outside of the convention that want to understand what's happening in real time, updating their Facebook, their blogs.

  • 12:27:04

    FRANCISAnd what AT&T has done with the RNC and the DNC is we've actually built the preferred mobile apps for each convention that's trying to build an app that you can download onto your devices, and it basically seamlessly integrates that whole experience for you. It integrates your social media sites. It enables streaming of real time video. It just enables the activity that's going to happen in that center and tries to give you an application that allows you to organize what you're trying to view and how you're trying to interact with others as part of the convention.

  • 12:27:57

    NNAMDIMark Francis, give us a sense of how the data demands on a company like yours have changed more broadly.

  • 12:28:03

    FRANCISYeah. So -- I mean, over the past few years, you mentioned in the introduction that, you know, just five years ago, the iPhone was introduced. So only a year into that introduction were the last conventions. Well, since that time, the data usage on our network has grown more than 5,000 percent. I mean, data is exploding. The use of data services on the network is exploding.

  • 12:28:31

    FRANCISSo what that means for a company like AT&T is over past three years, we've invested more than $2.8 billion in the state of Florida and $140 million, in particular, in the Tampa Bay area. We've built new cell sites. We've added a ton of Wi-Fi hotspots. We've put in and distributed antenna systems, which enable us to increase the signal strength within buildings. We've -- as you mentioned earlier, we've rolled in to augment the macro network.

  • 12:29:03

    FRANCISWe rolled in cell on wheels. We called them COWs. So there's been just a significant amount of work that's been performed and is ongoing to make sure that we can deliver that best network experience for our customers who want to consume the significant amount of data.

  • 12:29:22

    NNAMDIWe mentioned 50,000 people are going to be visiting the city this week. Can you walk us through the scale of that challenge from a technical perspective?

  • 12:29:31

    FRANCISYeah. What we tend to do for a lot of big events, because this is like this is going to be a big event, a lot of people, similar to the Super Bowl, similar to big concerts like Austin City Limits in Texas, so we have to look at that venue. We have to look at the anticipated traffic. And basically we have to augment the network in order to make sure that we can deliver on the capacity demands that will be, you know, put on the network, right?

  • 12:30:03

    FRANCISAnd so we have a standard process that we use for many big events. What's going to happen for Tampa Bay here, which is really nice, is after all this augmentation, most of which is permanent, as there are future events in Tampa Bay, they're going to benefit from the investments that we've made over the past few years.

  • 12:30:23

    NNAMDIYou can join the conversation by calling 800-433-8850. In case you're just joining us, we're talking with Mark Francis. He is vice president of Global Network Operations at AT&T. It's Tech Tuesday, and you can send email to kojo@wamu.org, or send us a tweet, @kojoshow. 800-433-8850. Mark, in January of 2009, more than a million people converged on Washington for the inauguration of Barack Obama, many hundreds of thousands of them apparently planning to use their cellphones, but many ended up finding that their phones would not connect.

  • 12:30:59

    NNAMDII'm sure that this is what you would consider the absolute nightmare scenario. So I guess my question is how do you make sure that doesn't happen at a major event like a political convention?

  • 12:31:10

    FRANCISYep. So you raised a good example of what has off-putting this new process in place that says we're going to ensure to our process that we understand the number of people that will be there, and more important than the number of people, the number of devices 'cause many people are traveling with more than one device. So the number of devices, the types of devices, the potential load on the network, and then we augment the network as much as we can to be able to deal with that load.

  • 12:31:43

    FRANCISAnd during the event, we're actually monitoring 24/7 the performance of the network, and we're making changes and adapting that network in real time to keep up with the load as it moves. The nature of the mobile aspect is any time, any place. So that load can tend to move during the day. And so you just have to be on top of it, and you have to monitor it. And you have to understand what's happening.

  • 12:32:11

    FRANCISMore importantly, you have to be prepared, which is why we run all of these big venues through our calculator that lets us know where we have to augment our network.

  • 12:32:33

    NNAMDII get the sense that consumers are not very forgiving when it comes to service disruptions these days. So talk a little bit about how customer expectations have evolved.

  • 12:32:44

    FRANCISWell, I mean, customer expectations are extremely high. There's an expectation that calls will connect and stay connected. There's an expectation that data speeds will be appropriate. You know, customers don't want to sit there seeing pixelation on their video streams. Customers don't want to sit there waiting to try and connect to the Internet. So the demand of the mobile network is as high as the demand for a wireline network as if you were on your laptop or your PC sitting at home.

  • 12:33:21

    FRANCISI mean, that's the current demand that customers have on the network. Their expectation is for a flawless experience and an exceptional experience. And that's what we're aiming to deliver...

  • 12:33:32

    NNAMDIIt's a..

  • 12:33:32

    FRANCIS...with the augmentations that we've put in place.

  • 12:33:36

    NNAMDIIt's a Tech Tuesday conversation on what's going on behind the scenes from a technological standpoint. We're talking with Mark Francis. He is vice president of Global Network Operations at AT&T. I'm inviting your calls at 800-433-8850. You can send us email to kojo@wamu.org. Is mobile technology changing the way we experience major events like conventions and inaugurations?

  • 12:33:59

    NNAMDIYou can also send us a tweet, @kojoshow. Make sure you use the #TechTuesday, or simply go to our website, kojo.org, and join the conversation there. Mark Francis, you've been involved with other major events like the Super Bowl and Austin City Limits. How do these events compare?

  • 12:34:16

    FRANCISWell, so it's interesting. With Austin City Limits, you're talking about a basically field, acres and acres of open space that 363 days of the year is just a park. Whereas with the conventions, we're talking about places where when we put permanent assets in place, there'll be more conventions to come in. There'll be concerts that come through, and that will totally be reused. With Austin City Limits, the problem is you really wouldn't put permanent infrastructure in place to cover an empty field.

  • 12:34:52

    FRANCISSo in that challenge, we're talking about much more augmentation with COLTs, which are cell on light trucks, and COWs, cell on wheels, talking about much more augmentation with Wi-Fi, talking about really putting a temporary solution in place for the duration of the event. Whereas in Tampa Bay, what we've put in -- the majority of what we've put in is a permanent solution, so it will last going forward.

  • 12:35:20

    NNAMDIHow did the tropical storm affect the work going on here in Tampa?

  • 12:35:24

    FRANCISYeah. I mean, we -- I want to say we dodged the bullet, but I don't think that would be fair to the people of Louisiana. We're currently tracking very closely Tropical Storm Ike, (sic) which is pretty much at hurricane strength right now. And our work as far as Tampa Bay goes was not impacted by this event. I mean, mostly a rain event for Florida, but we're really looking at what's going to happen as it comes through the Gulf and then into Louisiana.

  • 12:35:56

    FRANCISSo we're currently staging generators. We're sandbagging offices. We're doing all of the preparation that we do for every storm that reaches this kind of intensity.

  • 12:36:11

    NNAMDIYou know, with Tropical Storm Isaac, we, civilians -- we, just consumers, look to this weather event and sort of braced ourselves for what was coming. But from a big company like AT&T's perspective, this is something that is kind of, like, rolling through your network. It's been over your wires for almost a week now, right?

  • 12:36:30

    FRANCISYeah. Yeah. We basically track every one of these name storms as they hit this level of intensity. We take steps. We go through a seven-day hurricane checklist. We make sure that all of our generators have fuel topped off. If we need portable generators, we stage them in areas that might be close to where the storm would impact. We make sure that all of our offices and cell sites that have dedicated generators have their fuel topped off. We sandbag offices.

  • 12:37:03

    FRANCISI mean, it's a considerable amount of preparation work that what I like to say is you hope never has to be executed, but it's constant. It's constant. It's not just with the hurricane. It's hurricanes, tornados, wild fires. You know, it's all the types of disasters that can impact our network.

  • 12:37:27

    NNAMDIHere is Crystal Davis in Washington, D.C. on the phone. Crystal Davis, you're on the air. Go ahead please.

  • 12:37:33

    MS. CRYSTAL DAVISHi. Thank you, Kojo, for having me on. I actually represent Sprint Nextel. I'm one of the crisis communications in...

  • 12:37:39

    NNAMDII don't know if you can hear Crystal. I can't hear Crystal, but I know Crystal is from Sprint Nextel. And we're talking to AT&T because AT&T is the official carrier here.

  • 12:37:52

    DAVISHi. Can you hear me? Can you hear me? Hello.

  • 12:37:57

    FRANCISYes.

  • 12:37:59

    DAVISHello.

  • 12:38:00

    FRANCISHello.

  • 12:38:04

    NNAMDIYes, we can.

  • 12:38:06

    DAVISHi, this is Crystal Davis from Sprint Nextel.

  • 12:38:08

    NNAMDIYes, we can hear you, Crystal.

  • 12:38:09

    DAVISOK. Thank you. Hi, Kojo, and thank you for having me on. I just want to...

  • 12:38:12

    NNAMDINo. I think we can hear Crystal now. But Crystal...

  • 12:38:18

    DAVISI can hear you.

  • 12:40:32

    NNAMDIWelcome back. We're coming to you live from Tampa, Fla., where the Republican National Convention is taking place. And when we left you for a minute there, we were about to talk to Crystal Davis on the phone from Sprint Nextel. Our guest, of course, is Mark Francis, vice president of global network operations at AT&T. And, Crystal Davis, can you hear me this time?

  • 12:40:51

    DAVISYes. I can hear you loud and clear, Kojo.

  • 12:40:53

    NNAMDIGo right ahead, please.

  • 12:40:55

    DAVISI just wanted to thank you guys for having me on, and also to thank Mark. I know AT&T is doing a great job sponsoring the RNC convention. But I just wanted to make everyone aware that we know that 50,000-plus people are coming to the convention, and some of them might be Sprint Nextel customers. Sprint actually took a lot of time and effort and resources to enhance its network for the convention as well.

  • 12:41:19

    DAVISWe spent about $9.7 million, and we enhanced capacity on our network in Tampa by 25 percent to handle all the smartphones and the tablets and all the data transport that are happening down there right there this week.

  • 12:41:34

    NNAMDISo if all the Sprint customers here are finding themselves properly connected, it's because Sprint Nextel apparently got the job done. Crystal Davis, thank you so much for sharing that with us.

  • 12:41:44

    DAVISOh, thank you.

  • 12:41:46

    NNAMDIAnd, Mark Francis, thank you so much for joining us.

  • 12:41:51

    FRANCISThank you, Kojo. It was a pleasure.

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